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Is There Such a Thing as 'Ethical Oil'? Canada Claims it Has Lots and the US Is Buying It

Underlying the tar sands debate is a more profound question: Is it OK for some people to suffer as long as many others benefit?

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At its most candid, the oil industry doesn’t deny that tar sands extraction is problematic. As Travis Davies of the petroleum producers association said: “At the end of the day, no energy extraction is clean, and there is going to be environmental impacts.” Even a plaque at Ft. McMurray’s Oil Sands Discovery Centre museum is unflinching about the tradeoffs involved: “When we use energy from the oil sands to make our lives more pleasant, it has an impact and an environmental cost. New research can help us avoid some problems and limit others, but we cannot use energy and have no impact at all. We share the benefits of the industry and all of us -- oil sands companies, governments, and consumers -- have a part to play in ensuring those impacts are sustainable.”

At its most candid, the oil industry doesn’t deny that tar sands extraction is problematic. As Travis Davies of the petroleum producers association said: “At the end of the day, no energy extraction is clean, and there is going to be environmental impacts.” Even a plaque at Ft. McMurray’s Oil Sands Discovery Centre museum is unflinching about the tradeoffs involved: “When we use energy from the oil sands to make our lives more pleasant, it has an impact and an environmental cost. New research can help us avoid some problems and limit others, but we cannot use energy and have no impact at all. We share the benefits of the industry and all of us -- oil sands companies, governments, and consumers -- have a part to play in ensuring those impacts are sustainable.”

This admission actually serves to defend the destruction occurring in northern Alberta. It removes much of the responsibility for the tar sands’ impacts from the corporations doing the actual work and puts it squarely on consumers. The moral challenge is clear: What are you, dear driver, willing to sacrifice to maintain your “pleasant” life?

If “problems” and “impacts” are assumed as a given, then the moral defense of the Canadian tar sands rests on the idea of utilitarian ethics. Ever since John Stuart Mill declared that ethics could be decided by figuring out what would produce “the greatest good for the greatest number,” utilitarianism has been the favored justification of the free market. In the grim language of economists, it’s called cost-benefit analysis, and it does enjoy the virtue of a certain clarity. It’s alright if a few thousand people somewhere toward the North Pole are poisoned so long as 325 million other people have access to affordable energy.

But the ethical numbers game falls apart if we consider the idea of distributive justice. What if the harm to some is so much greater than the benefit enjoyed by others? Or, in this case: Is it alright for some people to have their skin bleached so that other people can pick up a gallon of milk without too much hassle? Kant, at least, wouldn’t approve: The end (cheap gas) doesn’t justify the means (clearcuts and cancer clusters).

In the simplest language, the debate over the morality of the tar sands comes down to a plain choice of who and what we are willing to destroy. For some people, the destruction isn’t worth any benefits. “We should be figuring out the best path forward, not the lesser of two evils,” Greenpeace campaigner Mike Hudma said. Hudema has debated Levant on television, and he has little patience for the claims about ethical oil. “I hate the argument that says we have to sacrifice some communities. I’m not going to go to people in Ft. Chipewyan and say you need to have your water poisoned, lose access to your ancestral lands, and suffer cancer -- be sacrificed -- so Americans can fill up their tanks.” In any case, the people in Ft. Chipewyan wouldn’t listen even if Hudema did. “You can’t put a price tag on our lives,” Lepine told me. “You can’t put a price tag on the lives of all the animals; you can’t put a price tag on our health.”

 
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